African viewpoint: A Sodom and Gomorrah dilemma

A flooded area of the capital, Accra, in October (Photo from Citi 97.3 FM)

In our series of viewpoints from African journalists, Ghanaian writer and former government minister Elizabeth Ohene laments the ritual devastation brought by heavy rains.

Accra, the city I call home, recently made it into the international headlines.

We have had floods, people have died, homes and businesses were destroyed and thousands of people have been left homeless.

Things were so bad the president of the republic himself donned Wellington boots and took to the devastated city dispensing love and sympathy.

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In Accra we build houses without permits and put up structures in waterways and use drains for rubbish disposal. Every year when the rains come and the floods devastate the city, we all say these unauthorised structures must be demolished”

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The fury of the waters had exposed the city as the exaggerated mega slum that it is.

All of us inhabitants of the city went into our well-practised routine of agonising and laying blame because the disaster did not really come as a surprise to us.

An interesting piece in a national daily newspaper put it into perspective by compiling the coverage in the paper of the regular flooding of Accra from way back in the 1950s.

There was a picture of Ghana's first Prime Minister Kwame Nkrumah and his Finance Minister Komla Agbeli Gbedemah inspecting the damage caused by floods and promising money to build storm drains.

The scene has been repeated every year with varying degrees of severity.

I have reported on floods in Accra since 1968, I have accompanied ministers and heads of state around the flooded areas of the city, I have been taken by the air force to get an aerial view, I have written editorials and countless articles, I have been on discussion programmes, I have been outraged and I have even been reduced to tears by the destruction caused by angry, swollen raging waters.

In Accra we build houses without permits and put up structures in waterways and use drains for rubbish disposal.

Every year when the rains come and the floods devastate the city, we all say these unauthorised structures must be demolished.

But once the sun comes out and the waters begin to recede, the tone of the conversation changes.

'Wicked, unfeeling government'

To borrow the words of the president of the republic when he was asked about the most famous illegal slum settlement in Accra, called Sodom and Gomorrah, "we know the people there must be resettled, but it must be done with a human face".

Soldiers rescuing people from the flood waters in Accra, October 2011  (Photo from Citi 97.3 FM) The army was brought in to rescue people caught up in the flood waters

He is not the first president to want to do this. Unfortunately there is no "human-face way" to demolish a structure.

Back in the year 2001, I was in government; we had similar floods, people died, homes and businesses were destroyed, there appeared to be general consensus that illegal structures should be demolished.

A few of those structures were demolished and I will never forget the "wicked, unfeeling government" headlines and heartbreak stories of widows being rendered homeless by the demolition exercise.

And now of course, it has become one of the entrenched rights of all 24 million Ghanaians to live in Accra.

As I heard on the radio this past week, those with structures in the waterways are also Ghanaians and have a right to live there.

We no longer speak about making the rural areas attractive for habitation.

Condemned by its name?

According to the city mayor, we need an amount of $500m (£312m) to build storm drains to avoid the floods.

Maybe we shall find the money and build the drains, but if these drains are used for rubbish disposal and we continue to build where we should not and places like Sodom and Gomorrah continue to expand whilst we try to find a human face to remove them, the yearly ritual will continue.

Right now the waters have receded and the floods and their aftermath have been pushed off the headlines and replaced by outrage and moral indignation at the British prime minister for threatening to cut aid to Ghana unless we legalise homosexuality.

Now that is a subject on which there is unanimity 24/7 amongst Ghanaians.

We shall never abandon our social and customary mores and we will rather die, if need be, with dignity but we shall "never legalise homosexuality".

But I wonder why anybody therefore requires a "human face" to start the demolition of a Sodom and Gomorrah; surely, the very name of the place condemns it.

If you would like to comment on Elizabeth Ohene's latest column, please do so below.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    I would like to think that Ms. Ohene was being ironic in stating she would rather die than legalise homosexuality. This is fanaticism. It is sad that in Ghana, as in so much of Africa, 'social and customary mores' must be so closely tied to the persecultion of a minority - a minority that will always be present whether she likes it or not.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    To MikyT:

    Are you suggesting that African society is incapable of setting it's own moral values and cultures? I guess if you have your way, you will legalize in-sex and human-animal sex. Should cultures and religion such as Islam, that polygamy impose their culture and religious beliefs on the West or others? Muslims cannot practice their polygamy in the West for example. So, let's be real.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    Re 14:

    Maybe, the British Prime Minister has finally realised that it's our money, not his. And we're getting sick and tired of our money being poured down the drain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    Maybe the British Prime Minister does not feel he can send his citizens' money to be used where all do not have equal rights to benefit from it. I doubt there is unanimity on opposition to legalising homosexuality - the 10% of the population who have such feelings but are forced to hide them or emigrate (perhaps to the West) won't be voting unanimously.

    Ghana can choose: take it or leave it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    Kingsley O
    8th November 2011 - 18:08
    "The West can keep their money if it means Africa has to legalize homosexuality. Leviticus 20:13"
    Interesting point of view, I wonder if you follow the other rules in Leviticus. How about stoning naughty children to death and going to hell for getting your hair cut...?

    Or maybe it's all rubbish and should be avoided at all costs, hmmmmmmm.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    #6 What has Ms. Ohene written that is a little confusing? What she expressed is what happens yearly during the rainy season and most government's response to the resulting human made disasters.
    As far as i am concerned, it seems that you have forgotten the most important advice given by you good father...respect for other people's opinion!

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    Global warming - it'll only get one heck of a lot worse from this point onwards.


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